What Is Code-switching?

A little context …

We recently went on a vacation to Texas to visit relatives. Not being from Texas, we were nervous about not knowing the customs or whether or not we would be accepted by a culture foreign to our own. So, when our relatives told us we were going to the neighbors for a barbecue, strong anxiety kicked in … almost immediately. The feeling was akin to fight or flight, and trust us we wanted to fly. Much to our reluctance, we went anyway. At first, we were naturally quiet and kept to ourselves. After a while though, we found ourselves in conversation with the neighbors, and not long after that we’d realized we were dropping “y’all’s,” making friends, and speaking with a southern twang. Huh? We don’t talk like this, we thought. Whats going on?

Sound familiar? Has this ever happened to you too? Of course it has. In fact, it’s impossible that it hasn’t. That’s because the practice of changing your speech patterns to fit different situations is nearly universal. It’s called code-switching, and we all do it.

Why do we code-switch?

There are many reasons why we code-switch. The main reason, however, is actually quite simple: acceptance in varying social situations.

It’s no secret that we instinctively fear being perceived as “the other,” or as different, or as an outsider. That’s a lonely place to be. It can cause anxiety, or even worse, it can lead to feelings so strong that we avoid interaction altogether. Thus, when we enter into a social situation we’re not familiar with, we code-switch to better fit in. This process happens intuitively and is a result of simply observing one’s surroundings. It’s almost like a translation device located in your head.

Realistically, code-switching knows no racial boundaries. Every geographic region and race have their own different dialects and ways of speaking. Practically, however, code-switching is much more prevalent among minorities. The reason for that is the usage of Standard American English (SAE). (This is where it gets dicey.) SAE is commonly associated with Caucasians, and as such, it is the basis of school curriculums and other formal tasks such as job interviews. Thus, speakers of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) or non-native English speakers find themselves commonly code-switching more often than their Caucasian peers. And, just to note, code-switching doesn’t have to be restricted to oral language.

In a sense though, code-switching requires minorities to almost be bilingual. This can be a pernicious problem for early-childhood development, and as of late, some linguists have been pushing to make code-switching a part of early-education curricula. It’s a great idea, but ultimately, a conversation for a different essay.

What about cultural appropriation?

In some circles, code-switching has been lumped in with the concept of cultural appropriation. It’s important to note that these charges are incorrect. In fact, the two have little to do with one another. The best way of looking at the distinction is this: If one chooses to adopt a dialect different from their own, the individual opens oneself to charges of cultural appropriation. Code-switching on the other hand is a subconscious action taken without consideration.

In the end, code-switching is just a natural byproduct of being exposed to different environments. And, that’s a good thing.

Sign up for our Newsletter!
Start your day with weird words, fun quizzes, and language stories.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

The Dictionary Is More Than The Word Of The Day

Enter your email for quizzes, quotes, and word facts in your inbox every day.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.